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Emotional Abuse

A Hidden Form of Domestic Abuse

There is no recourse for victims of psychological abuse.

Source: Pixabay/ionasnicolae

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and various organizations across the country will be raising awareness. Although domestic violence is a composite of abusive behaviors that include physical, psychological and sexual harm, our criminal justice system only recognizes and offers legal protection for physical or sexual violence. It’s this sole focus on violence that inadvertently masks a more harmful reality. What is missed and can be a serious detriment to women, men, and children is the hidden “psychological” abuse, the aspect of domestic violence that’s the most elusive, but which actually endangers the most.

Unlike other countries such as the UK and France, the United States does not protect those who endure psychological abuse, leaving those who suffer vulnerable, isolated, confused and traumatized by their experience. There are no institutional options for protection.

Psychological Abuse

In my groups for women with controlling partners, since the 1990s and even now, I hear women say that they wish their partner would hit them because then the injury would be more visible, or as one woman stated, “I’d rather be pummeled.” This kind of statement is a desperate expression to have the abuse seen and taken seriously by others and, most importantly, to be able to recognize it themselves.

Psychological abuse, like physical abuse, is used to gain power and control over an intimate partner and can be a precursor to physical violence. Unlike physical abuse, psychological abuse is hard to see because it happens with words and demeanor, without physical contact—yet it’s undeniable due to the psychological harm it causes.

Psychological abuse is made up of coercive tactics embedded in an intimate partner’s behavior that contain “hidden” injuries to the targeted person. The tactics are intended to gain the upper hand and keep the other off balance and controlled. These behaviors also recognized as emotional abuse can include gas-lighting, bullying, intimidating, verbal threats, ignoring, criticizing, demeaning, humiliating, intentionally inducing fear with angry outbursts and gestures, discounting, and actively undermining the intentions and strengths of the other. These coercive behaviors are extremely injurious to the targeted person.

Psychological Abuse Impacts Health as Much or Worse than Physical Abuse

Psychological abuse targets thoughts, feelings, and perception and is known to impact a person’s psyche and sense of wellbeing to the same extent as physical abuse (Katz, et al. 2000).

One research study showed two important results: that physical health problems resemble those who have experienced physical violence; and those facing psychological abuse are twice as likely to identify physical health issues as those who are not abused (Coker et al. 2000).

An even bigger consequence is the traumatic impact psychological abuse has on mental health. Even subtle psychological abuse (undermining, discounting)—without overt psychological abuse (dominating, demeaning) or violence—can be traumatizing (McKibbin 1998). In fact, subtle psychological abuse correlates more with women’s emotional states than acts of sexual and physical violence (Marshall 1999). Here are what the studies say regarding psychological abuse and women:

  • Experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem (Baldry 2003). 

  • Score lower on self-efficacy, which is how empowered a woman feels to make a difference, than women who are not abused (Ovara, McLeod, and Sharpe 1996). 

  • Shows up as the strongest predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder compared to physical violence and other types of abuse, (Pico- Alfonso 2005). 

  • Makes people more fearful than any other type of abuse and causes a loss of self-esteem (Sackett and Saunders 2001).

These findings make a strong case that, when you live with someone who is psychologically abusive, it’s just not possible to feel well or to be at your best because you’re at very high risk for a multitude of health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder. 

What Makes Psychological Abuse So Powerful…Context

In her well-received book Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist, explains that when an individual uses abusive tactics within a basic social structure, such as a couple or a family, it is possible to gain power over another human being. When this occurs, it is one of the most intense and damaging experiences for those involved.

Criminalize Psychological Abuse

Criminalizing psychological abuse conveys a strong cultural message that coercive behavior toward an intimate partner or family is not tolerated. The recipients who attend a recovery group for psychological abuse, for example, won’t have to feel uncertain about whether to take their abuse seriously. Actually, they might not end up needing to recover at all if it is recognized and acted on.



Baldry, A. C. 2003. “‘Sticks and Stones Hurt My Bones but His Glance and Words Hurt More’: The Impact of Psychological Abuse and Physical Violence by Former and Current Partners on Battered Women in Italy.” International Journal of Forensic Mental Health 2: 47–57.

Coker, A. L., P. H. Smith, L. Bethea, M. R. King, and R. E. McKeown. 2000. “Physical Health Consequences of Physical and Psychological Intimate Partner Violence.” Archive of Family Medicine. 9(5):451–7.

Katz, J., I. Arias, and S. Beach. 2000. “Psychological Abuse, Self- Esteem, and Women’s Dating Relationship Outcomes: A Comparison of the Self-Verification and Self-Enhancement Perspectives.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 24: 349–57.

Marshall, L. L. 1999. Effects of Men’s Subtle and Overt Psychological Abuse on Low-Income Women. Violence Victimization 14(1): 69–88.

McKibbin, C. 1998. “The Relationship of Subtle and Overt Psychological Abuse to Women’s Self-Concept and Psychological Symptoms.” Dissertation Abstracts International; Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 58(7-B): 3968.

Ovara, T. A., P. J. McLeod, and D. Sharpe. 1996. “Perception of Control, Depressive Symptomatology and Self-Esteem of Women in Transition from Abusive Relationships.” Journal of Family Violence 11: 167–86.

Pico-Alfonso, M. 2005. “Psychological Intimate Partner Violence: The Major Predictor of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Abused Women.” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 29(1): 181–93.

Sackett, L. A., and D. G. Saunders. 2001. “The Impact of Different Forms of Psychological Abuse on Battered Women.” Psychological Abuse in Violent Domestic Relationships. New York: Springer.

Taylor, K. 2004. Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control. New York: Oxford.

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